Thai activists plan to defy junta ban with more marches

Thai activists plan to defy junta ban with more marches
Demonstrators from the New Democracy Movement (NDM) take part in a rally at the Democracy Monument in Bangkok on Sep 19, 2015.
PHOTO: Reuters

BANGKOK - A group of pro-democracy activists said on Sunday they plan more marches after staging the largest political demonstration in Thailand's capital since a military government took power in May 2014.

Another protest would set up a flashpoint with a junta that is considering taking action against the organisers of the hundreds of people who, defying government orders, marched on Bangkok's Democracy Monument on Saturday.

The New Democracy Movement (NDM) may stage another event in early October, said Rangsiman Rome, an NDM coordinator and a law student at Bangkok's Thammasat University. "We are scared but will we back down? No. I will keep fighting because we want Thailand to become a democratic country," Rangsiman told Reuters on Sunday.

The group had permission to hold a forum at the university on Saturday but not to march beyond its walls.

It is unclear why authorities allowed the march to proceed. Protesters at many smaller gatherings have been detained by a government that has previously brooked no public show of dissent.

The junta of coup leader and Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha has banned political gatherings of more than five people and has summoned hundreds of activists for questioning. Many, including journalists and politicians, have been forced to attend "attitude adjustment" sessions at army bases.

Policy on gatherings has not changed, said junta spokesman Winthai Suvaree. "We have to see whether or not the demonstrations was lawful," he said. "Usually, we don't allow any political demonstrations." The demonstrators may have been attempting to "cause foreigners to misunderstand" that there is widespread opposition to the government ahead of a U.N. General Assembly in New York, deputy government spokesman Sansern Kaewkamnerd said on Saturday.

Prayuth will travel to New York this week to address the assembly. He has faced international criticism for staging the coup, including from the United States, a long-time ally of Thailand.

The protest on Saturday marked the ninth anniversary of a coup against the government of Thaksin Shinawatra that many Thais see as the trigger for a bitter political conflict that shows no sign of abating.

The conflict pits supporters of the powerful Shinawatra family against a royalist military backed by a network of old-money conservatives whose influence is being challenged.

The NDM aims to appeal to those on both sides of the political divide who want to see democracy, Rangsiman said. "This will empower others who have never protested to protest," said Sirawith Seritiwat, another NDM organiser who studies political science at Thammasat.

The military has no plans to cede power soon. Prayuth said last week an election could take place in July 2017.

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